Volunteering isn't free

by Aaron Gertler4 min read4th Feb 20204 comments


VolunteeringOrg StrategyCommunity

A comment by Golden_Spruce, cross-posted from a Reddit discussion. None of these points are original, but this is the best compilation I've seen of reasons that volunteering isn't always as positive as it might seem.

Of course, many volunteers clearly do a great deal of good. But I appreciate this charity's-eye view of the potential downsides of volunteer management, and I plan to think about the likely costs if I consider volunteer work in the future.



Volunteers can be a major asset to charities, but they also cost a lot of time and resources to manage, even if they are competent and dedicated. 

The costs of volunteer management

Note: I made some slight formatting/copyediting alterations for clarity.

I'm a huge proponent of volunteerism for a lot of reasons, and I think it's awesome that you do it! As a perspective-enhancer, I'll add something for you and others to think about when it comes to volunteering:

Volunteers are a huge asset, but also a big cost to an organization. And in many cases, they are a net cost. But most places consider it an important investment in their PR and in getting people involved in and caring about the work. And I really don't mean to discourage you - it's not a net disadvantage to have volunteers. It's just not free.

There are free/cheap/cost-effective ways to manage volunteers, but a lot of those options involve time, and that usually means paid staff (and donors hate paying for staff so...). Sometimes, volunteers can manage other volunteers, but this isn't always efficient.

Here's a list of the costs of volunteers:


Some organizations don't need to advertise for volunteers, they just come pouring in, far more than you could ever effectively use. But many volunteer positions need to be promoted and advertised just like jobs - everyone wants to play with the puppies, no one wants to clean up the frozen poop in the outdoor play area. It takes time, effort and money to recruit.


Not all volunteers are appropriate for all jobs. Depending on the position, you may have to interview volunteers (time), do reference checks, submit for criminal record checks and vulnerable sector, if they're volunteering to be your treasurer you may be doing a credit check, testing, etc.


This is different from screening, because not only do they have to be appropriate for certain jobs, they also have to want to do them or else they won't come back. So you ask them their interests and skills, and where they want to help, and then you expend time and resources to make that fit work. Or you shoehorn them into something and then they inevitably quit and you have the cost of turnover.


All volunteers need training. You might be a fairly competent person who can figure things out, but I guarantee you that 90% of volunteers who come in are worse than useless without very clear and specific training. This means developing policy, training materials (PowerPoints, videos, handouts) or staff dedicating time to hands-on training. And then all those things need to be updated, and you have to keep track of which volunteers have done which training.


You're often not allowed to have volunteers without paying extra liability. And they often have to be covered by [workers' compensation] just the same as employees, and someone has to be trained in how to deal with incidents so you don't have lost-time, just like employees. And heaven help you if you don't have insurance and a volunteer gets hurt or hurts a vulnerable client. You can't afford the costs or the reputational damages.

Capital/equipment costs

Volunteers are harder on equipment and supplies than staff. Anyone who works in an office knows that "communal scissors" have to be replaced much more often than ones you keep at your desk. They go missing, they get broken, someone cuts wet cement with them...I don't know how, but the replacement costs for stuff that volunteers use is high. We were doing a clean up one time and two volunteers chucked their high-vis vests and work gloves in a dumpster on the way back - I guess they thought they were one-time use? We didn't think we had to clarify that...but...see "Training".


Everyone (foundations, accreditation programs, donors) wants to know so many stats about your volunteers. How many are there, how many hours did they work (now you have to invest in time tracking, extra training and enforcement to make sure the volunteers know how to track their time), which percentage were mandated volunteers, which percentage were corporate volunteers, etc.

If they are doing mandated volunteerism (i.e. the need hours to graduate, or their parole relies on community involvement, or it's part of their disability program), you have to do specialized reporting for all of those things too, and fill out paperwork like mad.


If volunteers are scheduled to do some essential function and they don't show up...you have to dedicate staff time to urgently drumming up another volunteer ASAP or pay staff to do it. This leads to organizations giving actual essential work to staff to start with, with less important jobs going to volunteers if they show up. When Meals on Wheels drivers call in sick, you can't just...not do those routes...staff who have whole other jobs to do...have to go and do that work now. And then they come back and work paid or unpaid overtime to get their actual job done. Very few volunteers are interested in being on-call for last-minute no shows. I worked for a seniors centre; you would think retired people would be interested and available at the drop of a hat to fill in, but that is absolutely not the case.

Volunteer appreciation

Many volunteers say "I don't need an org to spend money on me, I don't expect anything", but they absolutely will leave if you don't at least verbally thank them. And, sure, thanking people is "free" - but the effort of thanking dozens or hundreds of people a day (and investing emotional energy into doing this, even if it wasn't actually that helpful, and it caused more work for you than it saved and you just don't feel like being thankful today). 

I don't mean to sound bitter and ungrateful, but if you've worked in a customer service environment, you know that this takes a real actual toll. You can never have a bad day with a volunteer. And that is only the "cost" for free stuff - many volunteers expect, for example, coffee or water.

Another piece of this is being a reference and writing reference letters. Many people volunteer to boost their resume or get a reference. And it takes, surprise surprise, a lot of time to do those things for folks.

And doing a little more than all of that is investment in retention (i.e. having a year-end appreciation for volunteers, or writing them a thank-you note), which leads to the next cost:


Volunteer turnover is much higher than staff turnover. Every time a volunteers goes through the whole process up to here and then quits and we have to start over, you incur all these costs again from scratch. This is why many times volunteers cost more than they "save". So you invest in trying to retain them.


Yep, even firing a terrible volunteer isn't free. This still has to be done thoughtfully and following the right channels, because a disgruntled volunteer can be hugely damaging to your reputation. And then you have to spend the time to document it all, update your volunteer records.

Many organizations do the bare minimum, or don't do these things well (because they often pay minimum wage, and as you can see, this is the work of a skilled HR person, and skilled HR people do not want to do this work). If you're lucky, your organization might spend money on a good database/software for tracking some of this stuff. If you're not lucky, you're trying to do it with paper files or Excel.

Again, this isn't a pity party, or trying to discourage people from volunteering. Volunteers are a sustaining life force to an organization, bringing energy and optimism when staff have none left to give. But they are not free.


4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:07 AM
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Thanks for sharing that. A lot of the above rings true to me, and it is a great summary of all the costs that that a prospective volunteer might not realise. I've managed volunteers working on several EA projects, and been a volunteer myself on many EA and non-EA projects. However, I think EA volunteers are on average more reliable and more competent than volunteers in general - (I can think of many possible reasons, but don't have a good idea what reasons are dominant), and for my projects the volunteers have been remote, which avoids some of the costs. I think volunteer impact could be one of those heavy-tailed distributions. Out of all the volunteers I've onboarded, the median volunteer hasn't provided much if any value, but there are a few volunteers that are gold, and made having volunteers well worth it overall for me. I haven't yet noticed any pattern that helps me work out in advance who those golden volunteers will be unfortunately!

I think this is consistent with the general perception I've had about why charities have volunteers, which is that the work the volunteers do is net negative but it's helpful to get them invested in the charity and therefore donate later. To a lesser extent, volunteers are sometimes a good pool to draw future employees.

There's an analogous situation in the corporate world, where interns do net negative work but companies have them anyway, because interns are useful as a hiring pool to draw future employees from.

I expect to want to link this periodically. One thing I could use is clearer survey data about how often volunteering is useful, and when it is useful almost-entirely-for-PR reasons. People often are quite reluctant to think volunteering isn't useful will say "My [favorite org] says they like volunteers!". (My background assumption is that their favorite org probably likes volunteers and needs to say so publicly, but primarily because of long-term-keeping-people-engaged reasons. But, I haven't actually seen reliable data here)

Thanks for sharing this.

I think these downsides of having volunteers are well presented and correct from my experience. I think there is not enough discussion about what does it mean to have a volunteer base and manage it for the organization, especially about the downsides, so I appreciate this post even more.

I think I'm slightly worried about how strong the claim in the linked comment may sound that volunteers are in many cases a net cost (even though later it's stated that it's not a net disadvantage). I would say that in most cases volunteers are beneficial for the organization and worth investing your resources.

You can mitigate a lot of highlighted problems and costs quite easily* by developing adequate structure within your organization, investing in organizational culture, emphasizing independence and proper decision making. This would at least partially mitigate problems like training, reporting, no-shows, volunteer appreciation, turnover, etc.

I think the norms leaders establish in the organization are the most important factor here. I have first-hand experience of the same people coming to volunteer in a similar group, but with different volunteering norms, and while in one group they were not motivated, hard to instruct and encourage to do meaningful work, in the new one the problem perished to my big surprise.

For us, in the organization I'm in the management, the biggest asset to have a big and effective volunteer base and structure our work accordingly was the model presented by Rick Falkvinge in Swarmwise, modeled after Pirate Party he established.

I heavily recommend getting familiar with it. I think it increases organizational capacity and robustness. And even it may not be adequate for every organization I think it's worth to steal from it as much as you can.

To give a perspective on this - in June 2019 - last time we collected data on this - we had 639 active volunteers in the organization with a median of 4 hours per week spent on charity work. This is accomplished with ~1 - 1.5 full-time volunteer management position equivalent.

I won't go into particular pros and cons of this model as this comment proved to be longer than planned, but I appreciate what was posted already by cafelow and Linch (like filters being important or increasing pool of future employes).

*Note that my experience is limited, as I worked with volunteers only in 2 organizations and don't have a good picture of how operations of other groups look like. Take this ignorance into account.